Covid19 Policy and the Libertarian Party

by Phil Jacobson

The Libertarian Party of North Carolina (LPNC) has gone on record as opposing government mandates regarding “passports” for Covid-19 vaccinations. The LPNC also opposes government mandates regarding the use of masks or other government mandates on this topic. It may seem, therefore, that LPNC opposes the use of these methods. That is by no means the case. It may also seem that libertarians are totally united on these points. That is also not the case.

Libertarianism is not a scientific discipline. Libertarianism is a political philosophy. The core principle of libertarianism is the Non-Aggression Principle (sometimes referred to as the Non-Initiation of Force Principle), which states that it is wrong for any human individual or group to use force to make other individuals or groups behave in specific ways, unless that force is used in retaliation for an initiation of force. That’s it. There is no higher ethical standard within libertarianism.

Libertarianism cannot address scientific issues beyond calling for maximizing voluntary cooperation rather than state mandated policy. Thus Libertarianism has no basis for appraising the health risks posed by the Covid19 pandemic, nor any other medical issue. Yes, it is true that the LP does oppose government mandates for such things as masks and vaccines. But Libertarianism neither recommends their use nor recommends against their use. Instead, Libertarianism promotes property rights. A citizen’s right to accept or reject medical advice is derived from that citizen’s property rights – specifically the ownership of the citizen’s own body. The choice to take a vaccine or to wear a mask comes from the citizen’s self-ownership. Taken to an extreme, this philosophy resembles anarchism or voluntarism. But to emphasize this dimension is to deflect from the power that voluntary citizen cooperation can muster.

Libertarianism is concerned with the methods by which a community should address a crisis like a pandemic rather than advocating specific choices. Government mandates associated with a pandemic are usually announced as a means to achieve what is called “herd immunity”, which is the condition where a large percentage of a given community has attained immunity to a given transmissible disease. Often the goal of at least 70% immunity is proposed as a minimum standard. Libertarianism does not oppose the desirability of achieving this goal. Instead Libertarianism addresses the means by which such community response, or opposition to it, might be mobilized.

But individual self-ownership is not the only property right which can impact a community response. The right of citizens to set standards of behavior on real estate owned (or rented) by those citizens is also a factor. A property owner may deny access to their property to those who do not adhere to the owner’s terms of access (e.g. “no shirt, no shoes, no service”). This property right also applies to organizations. An organization may set rules for organizational membership or for access to property owned by the organization. Thus businesses, churches, or private clubs can deny access to those who are not (or are) vaccinated or who do not (or do) wear masks. The right of a citizen to access such facilities is conditional. No citizen is required to patronize a private organization. The citizen has the freedom to refuse to interact with the organization. This contrasts the power to mandate the behavior of all citizens claimed by government agencies via law. Voluntary relations can be used to promote a community standard. An attempt to use these methods does not guarantee a result. But neither does an attempt to coerce an unwilling citizenry via unenforceable government mandates.

However the situation within the Libertarian Party (LP: referring to both the national LP and LPNC) is not so simple as the Non-Aggression Principle seems to imply. Those who call themselves libertarians are not of one voice of the potential for government action. This is especially true within the LP. Some LP members take the position that no government activity is acceptable unless it is based entirely on “the consent of the governed” (citing the USA Declaration of Independence and other sources of inspiration). Other Libertarians (referring to LP members), accept a very limited role for government. For this second group of Libertarians government organizations such as a military force, courts and police are accepted as legitimate. I will refer to this second group of Libertarians as “advocates of limited government”.

Within the group of Libertarian advocates of limited government there is considerable controversy about what a government organization should be allowed to do. If it is acceptable for the government to have any of the “acceptable” organizations the government becomes an employer. Thus, many argue, standards of behavior can be imposed on government employees, those entering government held real estate, and users of government services, just as they would for employees in the private sector. This includes the mandating of a dress code, including the wearing of masks, or the need to be vaccinated (a very common practice for the military services).

Another, even more controversial idea held by some Libertarians is that in an emergency, where the general public might be threatened, government can require citizens to do things or refrain from doing things which add to the threat. Thus the idea of quarantine for those who have infectious diseases (such as the historical case of the quarantined “Typhoid Mary” who carried the disease but did not suffer symptoms) might be supported by these Libertarians. Like the position of those opposing any but purely voluntary relations, this view is a minority within the LP – but it does exist, and LP membership is not denied to those who hold this view.

The point here is not to advocate for any of the specific views on these issues, and certainly not to weigh in on medical issues. But here are two specific points which are relevant to the discussion of the LP’s position regarding public policy on Covid-19.

One point is to make it clear that this level of diversity of opinion exists within the LP. Opposing government mandates is official LP policy, held by the vast majority of LP members, but subject to some diversity of interpretation. It is totally inaccurate to characterize the whole LP membership as being opposed to the use of masks and/or vaccines.

The second, and perhaps far more important point is that the LP endorses the very real power of voluntary cooperation to address the crisis without government mandates. If the goal of achieving something like a 70% vaccination rate for Covid-19 is to be achieved, it CAN be achieved through voluntary cooperation – if citizens accept this goal in large enough numbers. It is not necessary to lobby the government to force citizens into compliance if citizens can be convinced that such compliance is worth their voluntary acceptance. As a purely practical matter, if it is not possible to convince most citizens to comply voluntarily with specific medical advice, then no amount of government intervention will be enough to achieve that objective via compulsion.

We face a crisis in credibility – a problem which impacts far more than the issue of the current pandemic. We need to develop better ways to achieve consensus with one another before any policy can bring a full 70% of the population together. The LP endorses free and open communication as an essential means towards that end. The exclusive, or even predominant use of force to achieve any community goal is counter-productive.

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  • Jonathan Hopper
    published this page in News 2021-08-30 11:16:24 -0400
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